The other day, I bottled my Christmas ale, and it’ll be fizzy and ready to drink this weekend. It was a success, and I’m excited to drink it. The concept was a red ale with Pacifica hops and spice and orange peel infusions. I did a lot with this beer that was a little different than I have done in the past, to try to get a better product and it really worked out for me.
I used Maris Otter base malt for the first time (specifically the Thomas Fawcett MO). I’ve never been much of a fan of American 6-row because I don’t think it really has any flavor. By contrast, 2-row, especially British 2-row is more complex, and it brings a lot to the beer. MO is similar to 2-row, but more so. It’s not powerfully flavored, just complex and grainy, and maybe a bit earthy. You can tell why it is the traditional base for ales. The MO flavor carried right through to the final product, and it was a smashing success.
The funny thing is the main reason I’d never used MO before is that it’s kind of nichey, and I had never seen it in a recipe. All the ones I’ve read call for 2-row or 6-row, so when I got to designing my own recipes, I fell into that same rut. So, MO was a pleasant surprise. It’ll probably be my default base malt for ales in the future.
Traditionally red ales are made with roasted barley, from which they get their red color. I had to sub black patent, so I didn’t actually get a red color, but rather a pale brown. It hasn’t made any discernible impact on the flavor, but since the beer is spiced, I may just not be noticing. I have learned that Beersmith’s color estimates are off, at least for my setup. My beers always come out paler than estimated, even though the alcohol estimates are always spot-on.
I raved in an earlier post about the Pacific hops, and I’m going to rave about them some more. They’re fantastic. They’re low-alpha, so they’re not too bitter, and they’re very, very earthy. That’s the main flavor I get out of them. I’ve heard other references say that they are citrusy, but I’m not convinced my sensitivity to citrus is very high. Maybe others will get that out of them, but I get an earthiness that pairs fantastically with the complexity of the Maris Otter malt and the yeast flavors from British ale yeast. If SMaSH (Single Malt and Single Hop) brewing is your thing, I’d bet you could make a spectacular Special Bitter with Thomas Fawcett Maris Otter and Pacifica hops.
In the past, I’ve treated orange peel according to the recommendations I’ve read online–boil them for 5 minutes like a late hop addition. I’ve always been deeply dissatisfied with the results. I just don’t get much orange flavor coming through. I did that with this beer, and it was no good. So, this time, I added orange peel to the secondary for the last 10 days before bottling. (It was supposed to be 6, but my bottling got delayed.) I’ve done this with fruit flesh additions in the past with great success. I was a little concerned that I would get unpleasant bitterness from the whites of the peels, but I really didn’t. I used an ounce of dried bitter orange peel and an ounce of dried sweet orange peel. It works well in this beer, but it’s too intense for something like a Belgian white. If I ever do another one of those (I’m not a big fan of Belgian beers) I’ll probably do a 7-day infusion with a half ounce or two-thirds of an ounce total. The infusion also included a healthy handful of cloves and a stick of cinnamon. I’ve heard it from beer judges that you shouldn’t use cloves in beer, because it’s a phenolic off-flavor, so when you drink it, you’ll go, “there’s something wrong with this beer.” I disagree, at least for my palate. I think you have to be trained to think of cloves as a beer contaminant, and I haven’t been. With the orange peel especially, it makes my palate go, “Yum! Christmas!”
So that’s my experience with the 2012 Christmas Ale. I really hit the ball out of the park with this one, and learned some pretty cool stuff about ingredients.
You should be able to get Maris Otter at any homebrew store. Pacifica hops are a bit rarer, but New Zealand hops are getting easier to find all the time. If your local doesn’t stock them, they’re easy to order online. (But check your local first.)
I apologize for the lengthy and unexplained hiatus. Work got really busy, and then my whole family got sick one after the other. It’s the kind of situation that makes you want to grab a beer….
Anyway, I’m back and I have a couple things in the hopper.
This last weekend, I attended the sixth annual Tallahassee Brewfest. I’ve been fortunate enough to attend all but the fifth, and the event has grown to be quite a feast for the beer enthusiast.
All the usual suspects were there–Anheuser-Busch was pushing their “craft” brands, and InBev had their lineup of trendy imports. Brooklyn, Sweetwater and Rogue were represented, as they have had a local presence for a long time.
The real treat is the smaller up-and-coming local breweries, the craft brewers who are just moving into the market, and the homebrewers.
Swamp Head was there, with a broader selection of their beers than I had seen before. Midnight Oil was their standout, a coffee stout. I was oh-so-very close to voting them best in show for that beer. Coffee stouts and porters were very trendy–I sampled a dozen–and I think that by the end of the night, I was kind of over them. MO is a great beer though, and I’ll definitely be looking for it on tap. The gentleman representing Swamp Head was involved in the brewing there, and he was very happy to discuss recipes, ingredients and beer design philosophy, which was really good of him.
The beer I did vote for was Erie Brewing’s Railbender Ale. It was awesome, golden in color, with a ton of caramel malt. It was a coolish night, and a very fresh-drinking, flavorful beer, and it was just perfect for the occasion. It was sweet from that malt bill, so I don’t know how it would stand up to a hot summer day, but for wintertime drinking, it was exceptional.
The homebrewers mostly came from the North Florida Brewers’ League, and their beers were quite excellent. One of the fun things about homebrewing is that you can brew beer for you, without having to worry about whether it is particularly marketable. That tends to make homebrew a little bit avant garde, and that was the case at the Brewfest. There was some excellent creativity on display, and while not all tickled my palate, they were each skillfully crafted and fun to try. My favorite was a low-octane Belgian. They were very successful at getting the big flavor of a Belgian beer into a 5% alcohol package, and I was impressed. I may have to try that someday, because my classic 9-11% Belgians can be a bit much for many occasions.
One of the trends I’ve noticed at the Brewfest over the past 6 years is a movement away from ultra-hoppy beers. There are still plenty of IPA’s and Imperial this-and-thats for the hopheads, but there are more subtle beers, even very malty ones starting to work their way into the craft beer scene. I think this is great, not just because I’m not a hophead, but because a strong, earnest and diverse beer scene is good for everyone.
I’m making a beer this weekend using spruce extract, so I decided to test it last night to get an idea of the amount to include. The bottle recommended 1 tsp. per gallon, so I poured a half-liter of light lager and added 1/8 of a tsp.
Holy Christmas Tree! It was like sucking on a pine. It was drinkable, but it was piney. So, I’ll be cutting waaaaaay back on the actual recipe. I’m thinking about using 5% of the recommended dose, so 1/4 tsp. in a full 5 gallon batch.
It’s always a good idea to test any concentrated flavor extracts before you add them to your beer. I tried to make a cherry beer once with candy flavoring.
Cask ales are a big new thing in the American craft beer scene, and a very, very old thing in the beer world in general. The tannins from the oak used to make the barrels add a layer of complexity to the beer, and can change the flavor in some very pleasant ways.
You’re going to notice more difference between casked and uncasked beers if they’re less hoppy. Malt flavors are more affected by the oak tannins; hop flavors are almost completely unaffected.
The good news is that you don’t actually need an expensive cask, which is difficult to clean and care for. In terms of flavor, there is no meaningful difference between adding beer to oak, or adding oak to beer. You can use oak cubes or chips instead. In fact, homemade wine kits always come with oak chips that you add to the wine to simulate the flavors of the barrel.
There are two factors that determine how much oak flavor you will get–the surface area of the oak, and the time it is in contact with your beer. Oak can be overdone, giving you an unpleasant and astringent beer, so you need a plan of action before you begin. Typically, 1 ounce of oak chips left in contact with the beer 1-2 weeks gives a nice cask flavor. If you’re using oak cubes, remember that there is a lot of oak in the cube that is nowhere near the surface, so you need more. 3 ounces of cubes is about the equivalent of 1 ounce of chips.
You can use oak in either primary or secondary. I prefer secondary because I want them in for 2 weeks, and my beer doesn’t live in the primary that long. Oak commonly comes in packages that are not well-sanitized, so I usually pasteurize them before I put them in the beer. All that takes is 15 seconds in water over 161 F.
I usually do a 3-week secondary, so I actually add the oak to the secondary after the beer has been in it for a week. You really don’t want to leave the beer on the oak too long, so if you can’t bottle it within two to two-and-a-half weeks, you’ll need to move it to a tertiary.
Beer is often casked in used barrels, and those barrels may have been used for other beers, for wine, or for whiskey. To simulate used barrels, try this. First, wash and sanitize a funnel, a beer bottle and a cap. Then, pasteurize your oak and put it in the bottle. Finally, fill the bottle with beer, wine or whiskey and cap it. Let the oak absorb the flavors for a week, then add it to the beer you are making. I’ve had great results with this! Whiskey is so high in alcohol, you can use anything you have, but with wine and beer, you want to open a bottle fresh. You don’t want any bacteria that have nested in that red wine bottle you opened two days ago to get into your beer.
Making cask ales at home is actually super easy! Any store that sells winemaking gear will have lots of options, and you can always order online as well.
When I got into doing mashes, first doing partial mash, then doing all-grain, I kept it pretty close to the vest on my base grains, using Pilsner, UK 2-row and American 2- or 6-row, depending on what I was making. Those are probably the big 4, with Pilsner for German-style beers, UK 2-row for fuller-flavored ales and US pale malts for ales that need a cleaner flavor.
With my next couple of beers, I’m going to break out of that rut and try a couple new base malts, and I’m excited about them. I’m going to make a Whisky Ale with Maris Otter, which is very traditional for cask-style ales. (By the way, tomorrow’s Beginner’s Tuesday post is about how to make a cask ale.) Maris Otter has a distinctive nutty/biscuity aroma. I’m intrigued to see how it goes. I can envision it becoming my go-to base malt for less-hoppy British style ales.
With that whisky ale, I’m also going to try New Zealand-grown Pacific Gem hops, which are reported to have an earthy flavor with a dark berry note. I think that will match nicely with the peat-smoked malt and the oak tannins.
I’m really very excited about this Whisky Ale!
I’m also looking at doing version 3 of my Oatmeal Java Stout in the foreseeable future. I don’t feel like ‘m getting the right profile from the UK 2-row with that beer, so I’m going to use Mild Malt, which is a traditional base for stouts and dark porters. I also need to adjust my specialty grains because the batch is too chocolately. I need some more aggressive darkness to make it work, so maybe roasted barley…. We shall see.
People talk a lot about the recipes that work, but little about the ones that are colossal failures. There’s a lot to be learned from those failures, though. So, let me share one of mine.
A few years ago, my friend and I decided to make a pineapple pale ale. The details of the recipe are lost to the sands of time, but the gist of it was an extract “pale” ale (it was a bit darker than it should have been) with a boatload of hops, and some pineapple.
We didn’t realize that the sugar in the pineapple was basically going to ferment out completely. While we were expecting this tropical pale ale kind of taste, what we got was an intense sourness. Really, really intense sourness.
We also didn’t hop the beer very well. I wish I could remember details, but we put almost all the hops in the boil, without enough aroma hopping. Then we dry hopped it, and we did that waaaaaaaaay too long. That left a hop profile that was bitter to the point of being angry, then very, very, very green.
Between the sourness and the bitterness, the thing drank like it was sucking the moisture off your tongue.
Yeesh. Lessons learned.
I’m not as knowledgeable about hops as I am about the other beer ingredients, but this is something I’m trying to change.
Thus far my strategy has been to add hops to a beer that are regionally appropriate to the style, so noble hops for lagers and Fuggles or Goldings for British style ales. This works just fine because I make malty beers.
I want to make an English Pale Ale, though, to make a more hop-forward beer in a style that I would like to drink. I specifically want piney hops to pair with the Maris Otter base malt, and I’m going to keep the recipe crystal-malt free.
So, I go to some resources on hop varieties to figure out which ones are evergreeny, and no two resources ever agree on anything. One source suggested Simcoe, but others say Simcoe is a tropical fruit hop primarily.
I don’t really get why you can’t get a straight answer on this. Various resources on malts give basically similar information. Everyone agrees that Munich is sweeter than Pilsener.
So does anyone have any suggestions for a really piney hop?
Does anyone have a suggestion for a resource on hop flavors that has proven accurate for them?